Life is messy. So are
component parts of life: our politics, the environment, economics, and social
relationships. History teaches a valuable lesson that there is something
inherently unstable about our world, and we are forever seeking ways to reach an
equilibrium to stabilize it. Outcomes we wish to see happening are uncertain to
occur. The utopian view is that there is an ultimate solution to fixing the
mess. Others argue there is no fix and we must learn to adjust and live
according to the limitations of what we know and can know.
This causes anxiety like
watching a PGA golf tournament and the professional who is on the green but 20
feet from the 7th hole sends the ball on its way. We hold our breath.
Is the putt too soft or too hard? You simply wait and watch with everyone
In politics, those with
the putter claim the ball will drop. Even when it misses the hole, they claim
the ball dropped. Ambiguity trails us like a shadow. There is rarely an
objective moment, unlike golf, where you don’t need to rely on anything other
than your own eyes to know whether the shot succeeded.
Our political life isn’t a
game of golf. We can never escape the velocity of doubt whether the politicians
are using the right club, lining up correctly over the ball, or accurately
reporting the trajectory of their shot in relationship to the hole.
We live in a world where a
large number of people exchange their doubt and anxiety for a promise to deliver
a more certain, stable, ordered and predictable world than the actual one they
live in. That is costly, as politicians must rely on various illusory devices
and tricks to conjure up this illusion with enough credibility that they
substitute reality for a replacement story that creates an alternative
We are willing to pay
relatively high price in the reality stakes for answers that allow us
individually and collectively to believe what we are told is true. The illusion
of Understanding (see my essay on the
Illusion of Understanding.) is easier to maintain and the tacit
conspiracy to pretend the illusion is real allows us to move on from an issue
and spend our cognitive resources elsewhere.
There is a constant
tension over the official story between the individual and her group, and
between her group and other groups. The group may be a circle of friends,
relatives, colleagues, sports team or a religious, secular, or political party.
We draw much comfort in shared, collective beliefs and we draw our identity from
our group association. Mostly we place group solitary and individual
identity as a higher priority than understanding the complexity where the truth
is difficult to detect with certainty. Our group, returning to the golf
metaphor, always makes a hole in one, while those in rival groups are lost in
the tall grass, looking for their ball as the night closes in.
How do we resolve this
dilemma that arises as we move between the goals of group grooming and
We have two basic models
to work with: Insubordination and Challenge. Each of them offers a separate
vision on how best to work through the messy, hard problems that confront us.
Sometimes these two very different systems work in harmony, side-by-side, with
each delegated a role; sometimes, one model is ascendant and marginalizes the
The first model that
controls how we perceive reality rests on a system of subordination. Officials
inside an institution such as an orchestra or movie set work along a chain of
command. Orders are passed down the chain of command. The orders are to be
obeyed and not to be challenged by subordinates. The film director (he has a
producer breathing down his neck) or conductor (has a wealthy patron breathing
down his neck) is in charge. Despite certain limitations, his word is the law of
what the performance will be.
The job of film director
or orchestra conduct is to avoid chaos. So long as everyone he leads follows his
direction, he can deliver a certain quality of performance. The price of a
subordination system is the agreement for all involved to accept submission to a
disciplined hierarchy where each person’s role is defined and the person giving
the orders possesses the position and rank to justify his subordinate to act
without questioning the order.
Officers in the military
expect their subordinates to follow orders, and they expect to follow the orders
of those officers who rank above them in the chain of command. This is
fundamental to the culture of the military. Subordination systems share values
in common such as authority, loyalty, honor, respect and continuity. Whether it
is the military, the police, a court system, a sports team, a factory assembly
line, a film set, or an orchestra, there are subordination values used to
co-ordinate the work among a group of people.
An orchestra where the
first violinist stops the performance and challenges the conductor’s
interpretation of a movement would change our experience of music. Whatever the
private feelings of the first violinist or the cello player, these are not
expressed and the conductor’s authority is unchallenged as the orchestra
In other words, criticism,
dissent, difference of opinion give way to the rules of subordination otherwise
the performance by the orchestra collapses, a lower court overrules an appellant
court, the quarterback’s call is reversed by the right tackle, and a sergeant
decides against his officer’s command to advance on an enemy position. All of
these reversals happen now and again and the person who makes such a challenge
is guilty of insubordination. Treason, betrayal, faithlessness and disloyalty
are express the stigma attached to such insubordination.
If the conductor had
absolute power, he might seek to expand his authority to include what is
appropriate for poetry, ballet, literature, drama, TV, computer games and film
and impose an artistic vision for all of the arts. That is unlikely to happen.
There are too many different visions, tastes, traditions, and messiness for any
one person to control. Any attempt at such a command and control system would
drive artists underground. In the arts, like in science, we assume that
experimenting and testing is a good thing to be encouraged. Note that some of it
will be a dead end and without value to the artist or society, but that is only
discovered by allowing the space to fail.
The spotlight culture is a
place where truth is manufactured and distributed to the consumer. The finished
product is complete, reliable, and ready for immediate consumption. There are no
alternatives to challenge the truth in the spotlight culture.
The flashlight model (this
is idealized) is based on the individual’s right to criticize, challenge or
question authority, policy, motives, efficiency, or outcomes by those in power.
Journalists, scholars, academics, NG0s, whistleblowers, and outside experts are
obvious players in the flashlight culture. The flashlight has also become a
symbol in protest and demonstrations as the picture below from the Ukraine
illustrates. People have a huge desire to see the hidden and buried story. Those
who seek information of activity occurring behind the scenes of power rely on
the flashlight. These lights are pointed at the dark areas well outside the
spotlight and act to keep government officials honest and transparent. In
the case of someone like Edward Snowden the flashlight is on the magnitude of a
supernova. Socrates urged people to ask questions as a way of shining a light
into darkness and to ignore the facile answers found in the
A flashlight culture
assumes we share similar flawed knowledge and the same cognitive biases that
distort reality unless corrected. Western parliamentary styled political systems
rest on the opposite, an opposition challenging the government of the day to
explain and justify their decisions. The individual challenges the group leader
because he or she is one of us and knows no more than anyone else about the
complex network of information.
Unlike an orchestra, the
prime minister, unlike a conductor, answers his or her critics with explanations
rather than with threats or suppression. The role of the opposition is to make
the conductor account for his choices. The purpose of shining a light on
evidence that is contrary to the government’s narrative is to expose weakness of
policy or execution of policy. The motives of flashlight holders may not be
pure. They may be exposing facts for political gain at the expense of the
government but such exposure works to the favor of the general population which
benefits from a correction in policy or a change in personnel to carry out
The encouragement of
challenging authority is what has given us a robust scientific method. The most
junior member of a research team is not disqualified from overturning the theory
of the most respected member of the scientific community. The theory, in other
words, is separate from the personality supporting it. But we have difficulty
distinguishing attacks on theory as attacks on the person who supports the
theory. The question in science isn’t, what does this critic have against the
person who supports the String Theory, but what evidence does he or she have to
refute the theory. In non-scientific areas such as politics, we are still a long
way from isolating policy for critical analysis from the personality, background
and reputation of the person who has proposed the policy.
We can also accept that
the challenge-the-authority paradigm isn’t always appropriate in all
circumstances. An orchestra, military, police, or football team, to name a few
examples, depends on subordination to work effectively as a cohesive unit. The
question is how and who decides what is the right place for one system to
operate and claim legitimacy over and above the other?
The flashlight culture
exposes flaws and defects in the spotlight cultural truth products. The
flashlight illumination exposes dangers, risks, omissions, and distortions.
Truth becomes stripped of illusions in the process.
and Flashlights into a Unified Lightning System
Every culture has a
different interpretation on how to fit these pieces together, and who gets the
job, and how those with power are selected, controlled and discharged. How
best to light the political stage is a question every country answers in its own
way. The reality is we need to find the right combination of subordination and
challenge. Last week, I examined the BBC 2012 top-ten list of the largest
employers in the world. (Crunching
Big Number, Understanding Short Lists.) From the American Defense
Department to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the ability to scale huge
operations relies on implementing an effective subordination system. A
‘soft’ subordination system explains the presence of Wal-Mart and McDonalds on
the same list. Co-ordination on a large scale is impossible without an order and
command structure, where insubordination is punished.
The question is whether
the Spotlight or subordination system, an absolute one, where flashlights are
confiscated and flashlight people’s action are criminalized, can operate
effectively at the political and government level. Can a government be run along
the lines of an orchestra with a conductor choosing the music, time, length,
place of performance and exclude any other orchestra from performing and jail
music critics who claim the cello player made several mistakes and the piano
Looking around the world
from Thailand, Egypt, Syria, and the Ukraine, the old consensus on the right mix
of spotlight and flashlight culture has broken down. The attempt to contain
instability, the messiness of life, leads to fear, and to banish fear is to
embrace subordination. There is a belief that salvation rests in choosing the
right conductor and letting him run the whole performance. Challengers to the
vision are seen as enhancing fear and instability. They are the first violinist
who rises and objects to the choice of music. The pendulum swings to
subordination. But the nature of pendulum is to swing back, too. In time, the
flirtation with expanding the subordination model into the political realm will
reinforce a historical lesson about the nature of governing.
As the flashlight culture
has gone online, the means of shutting it down are difficult. The digital
flashlight exposes hypocrisy, deception, half-truths, cover-ups in a very public
way. This is inconvenient and embarrassing for those who banish flashlights and
wish to return people’s attention back to the spotlight.
Throwing your opposition
in jail or send them fleeing into the mountains and jungle or exile, may work in
the short-term, and you can control the performance. But in the long term,
people who want classical music will understand they need to accommodate a space
for those who love jazz, hip-hop, pop, Hollywood show tunes, and even for those
repulsive noise traps called rap, country and Korean boy bands. Politics is a
noisy place. When one director plays only one tune you can be sure people will
sooner or later find a way to switch the channel. To return to our lighting
metaphor, the amount of repression required to neutralize and co-op its
flashlight holders would turn the world against those in standing in the